In recent memory, it seems that the Grammys have seldom gotten it right, overlooking deserving performers in favor of industry standbys, naming established performers as “Best New Artist,” and increasingly marginalizing concert music and jazz. This year, the Grammy misadventures continue; for instance, Corrine Bailey Rae’s CD wasn’t even released this year, yet she’s a nominee!
It’s pleasing, however, to see an adventurous dark horse receive a Grammy nomination, albeit in a relatively minor category; People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938 has been nominated for Best Historical Album. A 3 CD boxed set released by Tompkins Square, People Take Warning is a compilation highlighting the tragic strain in American “Roots Music.” Somberness is understandably quite prevalent in Depression-era songs, but the boxed set points out that horrifying tales and underlying fears have been an integral part of American folksong from the dawn of the recorded era. The three discs each have a different overarching theme.
Disc one is entitled “Man V. Machine;” the sinking of the Titanic and various train wrecks feature prominently. Disc two, “Man V. Nature,” tackles floods, pestilence (blasted Boll Weevils!), cyclones, and earthquakes. Disc three rounds things out with 22 murder ballads: “Man V. Man (and Woman, Too).” Recordings by big names, such as Charlie Patton and Son House, and more obscure artists alike are treated to loving restoration and fastidious liner note annotations by Christopher King and Henry Sapoznik.
In his Introduction, Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits), points out that these recordings were often put together in quick fashion, sometimes with new and topical lyrics cobbled together with an old tune. He likens disaster songs to contemporary pulp journalism. While Waits doesn’t deny the rough hewn character of these pieces, he points out that they capture the poignancy of another time’s sense of community and its mournful elegies. Sapoznik, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from the darker societal aspects of disaster music. While Waits accentuates the way that the songs brought communities together in grieving, Sapoznik points out who they excluded along the way. There is a strain of paranoia, xenophobia, and sometimes even racism in disaster songs. Occasionally, murder ballads rushed to judgment and accused the wrong party, someone who may have been unjustly convicted, or even lynched. It’s to the producers’ credit that they provide a balanced portrait of the material contained in People Take Warning.
While one may be justifiably troubled by these issues, there are many compelling performances of pieces with more universal appeal. “When the Levee Breaks,” with its incendiary guitar work from Memphis Minnie, is worth the price of the box. Charlie Patton’s two sides of “High Water Everywhere” are classic cuts that take on additional cultural resonance today, given the recent tragic struggles with flooding in the Deep South. Gruesome as its tale was, “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is angelically sung by the Carolina Buddies. “Wreck of the Old 97,” performed here by the Skillet Lickers (!) is a roots music staple; they also give a rousing rendition of “Casey Jones,” complete with train horn. It might be awkward to put this in someone’s stocking without an explanatory card (“The cover’s scary, but the music’s really good – honest Mom!”), but this excellently presented collection maintains the relevance of the boxed set in the digital recording era.
More Historic Recordings (from throughout the World) on Dust-to-Digital is another label that has proven a treasure trove for historic recording enthusiasts. Like Tompkins Square, they don’t skimp on the packaging, providing excellent annotations and liner notes essays that educate as well as inform. Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics (1918-1955) is a wide-ranging one-disc survey of ethnic music recordings from the collection of Baltimore record shop owner Ian Nagoski. Nagoski claims he paid only $150 for the recordings presented here, and never had to drive more than a half hour from his home to collect them. Yet Black Mirror contains an astounding variety of material. Syrian violinist Naim Karakandi uses his instrument to imitate the zamr hornpipe on the beguiling “Kamanagah.” Northumbrian Pipe Major Forsyth gives a stirring reading of “Mallorca.” Neriman Altindag’s rendition of “Soyledi Yok Yok” embodies the undulating, melismatic style of Turkish Erzurum-styled folksong, strongly influenced by Eastern European music. “Nam Nhi-tu,” performed by M. Nguyen Van Minh-Con on a dan bau – a kind of monochord fitted with a whammy bar – is filled with sultry glissandi and quasi-vocal inflections. Black Mirror is amazing not only as a sound-artifact collection, but also as an object lesson: what a hoard of treasure dedicated vinyl digging can yield!Overtone singing may be more familiar to Westerners than it once was, but the sound of traditional Tuvan folk music is still a striking phenomenon. Melodii Tuvi: Throat Songs and Folk Tunes from Tuva captures the various styles of traditional Tuvan overtone singing in performances by some of their most prominent mid-century exponents. The sixteen recordings presented here were originally released in 1969 by the Soviet Union. They include the work of Oojak Hunashtaar-ool (1932-93), possibly the best known Tuvan overtone singer. Hunashtaar-ool is heard here singing in three different styles. Khoomei features a bass drone with soft, arpeggiated flute tone harmonices above it. Sygyt has a more piercing, melodically elaborate flute tone, while Kargyraa features sepulchral bass drones.Other singers and instrumentalists on the recording include Kara-sal Ak-ool, Sat Mantsakay, M. Dakpay, and Kara-sal Ak-ool. These are mind-blowing recordings that will make one reevaluate the vast potentialities of the singing voice.
File Under ? ran as a monthly column for nearly three years at www.splendidmagazine.com, a daily online music site. I’m grateful that Sequenza 21 has agreed to host the column as a regular offering.
Christian Carey is a composer, performer, and writer. He’s a regular contributor to Signal to Noise, Musicworks, Pop Matters, and All About Jazz. His music has been performed by the Cassatt String Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra, and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. He teaches at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey.